TRUCKSVILLE — The gymnasium on the Back Mountain Harvest Assembly Church campus was bustling when director Luann Letoski stalked in, clipboard under arm.
“Alright, I need everyone who needs a monitor check up on the hill,” Letoski yelled to the room full of actors, young and old, dressed head to foot in first-century attire. Some scrambled out of the warm rec center into the stinging cold to obey the stern director.
One actor walked past, muttering something about the director’s “unending supply of patience.”
Letoski chuckled as he passed. “They’re always brave when they’re far away,” she hollered back to the actor who was now out of reach.
The temperature dipped into single digits, but nearly 200 church members, making up the cast and crew of Back Mountain Harvest’s stage production “The Gift,” swarmed around the hill top Thursday night to play their parts, rig stage lighting and manage farm animals for dress rehearsal.
This weekend’s performances are the church’s 2oth annual production of “The Gift,” which historically has drawn 10,000-plus each year to sit on bleachers and bales of hay for the one-hour enactment of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection.
Longtime church handyman Tom Mahoney, bundled in heavy coveralls and face mask, went up in a cherry picker to uncover a cluster of stage lights. Down below, actors dressed as Roman Centurions committed to their role, strutted around wearing short sleeves and armored skirts, their exposed knees prickled with goosebumps.
Humphrey and Curley, the crowd-favorite camels, took a dry run through the set, towering over the scurrying stage hands and actors, preparing to carry wise men to meet the newborn king.
About 120 signed up this year to act in the outdoor drama, and more than 70 help by guiding livestock, raising bleachers and constructing the set that fills a football-field-sized space. On average, the church spends about $50,000 each year on the performance, Letoski said.
But it didn’t start out that way.
Up in the costume room, which is now equipped with all the comforts of home including a TV and a refrigerator, longtime costume director Deb Miller sat back after spending the evening dressing Centurions for rehearsal. She remembered back in 1993, when, on a whim, the group decided to put the first production together.
In 13 days, the members recruited everyone in the church, about 50 people, to take part. They borrowed some costumes from another church and tracked down every spare bed sheet that could be converted to a robe.
“We turned my basement into a sewing factory,” Miller said.
Now, planning starts each year in September. Miller and she and her “right-hand man,” Leeann Malacavage, mend and fit 120 costumes. After 20 years this is to be her final run as head seamstress, though she admits she will still spend a lot of time helping Malacavage, who is assuming her role.
The costumes are enough to fill 35 washer-loads after the final performance, “and that’s not counting the hand-washed costumes,” Miller said.
They’ve learned from their experiences, too, Miller said, enforcing a strict no-eating policy for actors in costumes. One too many angels returned robes with hot chocolate stains on the bright white gowns, she said.
Some dirtying is inevitable.
“Shepherds are always going to get dirty. That’s just the nature of the job,” Miller said. “Soldiers, we’ll just tell them to wipe dirt on themselves, makes them look nastier.”
Up on the hill, the Rev. Dan Miller (Deb’s husband), surveyed the set before entering the gym to pray with the cast members.
This weekend’s forecast includes inches of snow for Saturday. Miller said the prediction likely will bring strong crowds today and Sunday. Cancellations due to weather are to be announced on the church’s website, www.bmha.org.
“Two to 4 inches, we’ll do it,” Miller said. “We’ve done snow before. … This is about as cold as it’s ever been.”